Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Teaching Face to Face in the Pandemic - The First 3 Weeks

It has been exciting, and quite interesting, to be back to teaching face to face at UMass Amherst in the pandemic.

When the COVID-19 pandemic was officially declared by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020, I was on sabbatical for that spring term, and, hence, was not teaching.

Last academic year the instruction was done remotely, except for a few classes at the Isenberg School of Management. Hence, I taught all my courses in the Fall 2020 and Spring 2021 remotely via Zoom. It was a novel experience, especially since I had never taught online before. With the right technology, coupled with a lot of energy and creativity, the courses actually worked out quite well. A big plus was being able to host remarkable guest speakers, who are top professionals, in classes (and the speakers did not have to travel but could Zoom in even from Europe). 

The students regularly showed up to my Zoom office hours and I got to know many of them as individuals. Quite a few continue to stay in touch, even though they have now graduated!

UMass Amherst has a vaccination mandate (with exceptions for medical and religious reasons) for students, faculty, and staff, so that has provided some reassurance even with the Delta variant. Of course, there are still hundreds who are not vaccinated.

Also, UMass Amherst has a mask mandate inside buildings and students have to be masked in classes (although, strangely, faculty do not, and this has been bothering me a lot but this policy, to date, has not been changed). I am teaching with an N95 mask my Transportation and Logistics course.

It is very clear to me that students are glad that the instruction is now face to face. The first two lectures (I have now taught for three weeks) I reminded the students that the masks must be worn so that they cover their noses and mouths. If a student needs to drink, then the student should leave the classroom, and do so outside the room. The students have been truly wonderful at complying. They care about the health and safety of all and doing their best so that we can continue to have the university open and classes conducted in person.

Some features of  "remote" learning remain, which are actually positives. Assignments, lecture notes, and homeworks are all posted on Blackboard. This saves paper and the environment and the grades are easy to calculate but the "marking" of the homeworks can be challenging since it is much easier to write on paper. The students have gotten used to submitting homeworks online and this positive feature remains.

Also, and this is also advantageous pedagogically, when we were teaching (and learning) via Zoom, the classes were recorded and I would post the videos on Blackboard. Students, could then go back to review the material. This feature was very convenient and helpful.

Now, each of my classes (I had to have a classroom switch, due to several issues, including broken windows and technology that did not work) is recorded via Echo 360. I post the videos of the classes on Blackboard. Last year, I taught synchronously on Zoom and I liked the fact that we had a set schedule, which provided a nice rhythm to the week with the class meetings and also office hours. The students very much appreciated that the classes were "live" and not prerecorded (asynchronous teaching and learning).

I emphasize to the students that they must let me know if they will be missing a class and that is certainly happening in the pandemic. Having recordings of class meetings helps, but being healthy and in class is the best. The courses I teach are quite technical and having students ask questions while the class is in session can save a lot of time and enhances learning. 

I make sure that a window is open and the door to the classroom as well for ventilation since a layered approach to minimizing risk and contagion is important. Even the vaccinated can transmit the Delta variant so one has to be very careful.

So far, the teaching in person experience (once I got a new classroom) has been enjoyable and rewarding, despite it being the pandemic. 

I receive many "Thank you!s" after each class, which makes my day. I hope to instill the passion that I have for the subject in my students.

I am sure that this semester will bring new challenges, but, so far, I am feeling, more or less, "safe" and I love teaching my Transportation and Logistics class and interacting with the students in person.

Now, if only my PhD student had gotten his visa in time, so that he could be my TA. He is scheduled to arrive now in Spring 2020.